I, like many others, was fascinated by the slogans, symbols and spectacle of Quebec’s mass student protests last year, known colloquially as the printemps érable, or maple spring. The conflict began as a protest against the then Liberal government’s plan to raise tuition fees by $325 a year for five years, which would have brought tuition to $3,800 a year when fully implemented by fall 2016 – a rise of roughly 75 percent. The Liberals under Premier Jean Charest called an election for Sept. 4 of last year and subsequently lost – in no small part due to the student protests – and the incoming Parti Quebecois government promptly cancelled the tuition hikes.
The protests garnered international attention, yet most Canadians outside Quebec remained essentially bystanders to the action. Some of the Quebec student leaders did tour outside the province to explain to other student groups what was happening and how to get involved, but the reality remains that the conflict was almost entirely a Quebec phenomenon. Although tuition fees are much higher in most Canadian provinces compared to Quebec, students in the rest of Canada have protested rising fees only sporadically and in no sustained way.
Why has there been so little echo of the Quebec protests among students in the rest of Canada? It’s an interesting question, and one which Laura Pin, a PhD student in political science at York University, valiantly tried to answer at the “Academia in the Age of Austerity” conference held earlier this month in Toronto (organized by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations). She was part of a panel of student leaders discussing “Quebec and beyond.” Prior to her grad studies, Ms. Pin worked as a research analyst on postsecondary education policy for the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.
Ms. Pin suggested four factors accounting for a lack of action outside Quebec. The first involves what she called the “political opportunity” structure. There was a “clear initiating event” – the Charest government’s planned tuition hikes – which spurred students to action. Speaking of Ontario, Ms. Pin noted that tuition increases have been persistent but incremental, so students haven’t quite faced the same “sticker shock” as those in Quebec. One commentator at the conference referred to this as the “boiling frog” metaphor.
Second, the Charest government was in its third mandate and was seen by many as tired and past its prime. Ms. Pin noted that the Liberals were sitting low in the opinion polls and reaching the end of their current mandate, and many wanted simply to see them go. The student protests were a great opportunity for opposition groups, in general, to oppose and weaken the government.
Third, there is a long history of social action in Quebec regarding postsecondary education going back to the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, resulting in major student mobilizations every few years. As well, the tuition hikes were seen in Quebec as being part of broader social issues on equality and opportunity that were raised by the conflict. By contrast, in Ontario, Ms. Pin said there has been “lots of austerity rhetoric” for years now. Media coverage outside Quebec, as well, was “demeaning and vilifying” of the student protests. Plus, university education is increasingly being seen in Canada as a private benefit accruing to the individual, so tuition fees and student debt become more of a personal than a societal issue, she said.
Fourth, and finally, Ms. Pin hypothesized that high tuition in Ontario (and much of the rest of Canada) may in itself stifle protest because there is “more to lose” – i.e., the opportunity cost of protest is higher. Additionally, a high debt load and the necessity for many students to work part-time while studying can impede collective action, she said; it is harder for students with heavy workloads “to engage” with the issues. And, in Ontario, the way student assistance is structured, if you miss your classes you risk losing your financial support.
I think her points are all thoughtful and plausible. A cynic, however, might suggest that they seem more like excuses – in the sense of offering justifications for inaction – rather than causes. But that might be splitting hairs. I do know, however, that in light of recent budget cuts, there are those who would say the protests have been a disaster for Quebec’s universities, but that’s a discussion for another day.
What do you think? Why has there been so little student reaction outside Quebec?